On January 9, Freedom Industries of Charleston, West Virginia, reported to state officials that a storage tank had been leaking the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCMH) into the Elk River near Charleston, resulting in water contamination and a water use ban for more than 300,000 people in nine counties.
Exposure to the chemical can cause “severe burning in throat, severe eye irritation, non-stop vomiting, trouble breathing or severe skin irritation such as skin blistering,” the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources declared. Area hospitals reported an increase in chemical-related admissions. Health officials said that 20 people had been admitted to hospitals; 411 had been treated and released from the emergency room, and 2,302 had called the poison control center as of January 18, according to ThinkProgress.org. Residents and officials fear possible long-term adverse health effects. Although the ban has been lifted, Rahul Gupta, health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, told the Charleston Daily Mail that his department is not declaring the water safe. “West Virginia American Water is saying it’s safe. We are taking their word for it.”After ban was lifted, the Department of Health and Human Resources issued an advisory for pregnant women, based in part on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recommending that pregnant women drink bottled water until there are no longer detectable levels of MCHM in the water system. The declared safety threshold of 1ppm (part per million) for MCMH is based on very limited information, including a study that tested only the main ingredient, 4-MCMH. Environmental consultant Evan Hansen told ThinkProgress that it’s possible that this may not be the most harmful ingredient in the chemical, and that officials may be testing the “wrong one.”
Twelve days after reporting the initial spill, Freedom Industries disclosed that an additional chemical, PPH, had spilled into the water but would not give the exact identity of the substance, saying it is “proprietary,” according to the Charleston Gazette. The company, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on January 17, has twice amended the amount of MCMH believed to have spilled, from 5,000 gallons to 7,500, and, most recently, to10,000 gallons.
Many residents say that even after flushing pipes according to water company instructions, they still detect a licorice odor and many will continue to use bottled water. Health officials report complaints from 14 schools of a licorice smell even after MCHM levels were were classified “non-detect” and the buildings were allowed to reopen, according to ThinkProgress.